4 New Search Teams Join the SDF Roster!

With friends and family cheering them on, four new Canine Disaster Search Teams joined the elite roster of urban search and rescue responders at the Search Dog Foundation’s (SDF) National Training Center on Friday, February 2, 2018. These new teams will follow in the foot and paw prints of generations who came before them to prepare for federal and state certification. After attaining certification, the teams will be eligible to deploy with their respective task forces in the wake of disasters such as earthquakes, mudslides, and hurricanes, searching for survivors in the rubble and debris.

The new Canine Disaster Search Teams joining our nation’s disaster response network are:

Gary Durian and Search Dog Frisco (Los Angeles County Fire Department/California Task Force 2)

Paul Januario and Search Dog Bear (Sacramento Fire Department/California Task Force 7)

Adam Leckonby and Search Dog Marley (New York State Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Services/New York Task Force 2)

Brook Rowley and Search Dog Echo (New York State Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Services/New York Task Force 2)

These new handlers spent the past two weeks in intensive academy-style training to master the basics of canine handling, as well as more advanced theories on scenting and search strategy. Even prior to this Handler Course, these dedicated individuals have trained for months with their task force teammates and SDF-trained search dogs at their home training sites. After working with several of the 17 canine candidates currently in training at SDF’s National Training Center, the handlers were partnered with their new search dogs in a special “passing of the leash” ceremony Friday morning.

“Being partnered with your new canine partner is a life-changing experience that one never forgets – I’ve been lucky enough to be partnered with Frisco, my third disaster search dog from the Search Dog Foundation and he is a searching machine!” says Gary. “I can see why he would have been a difficult pet as he clearly needed a job and I’m more than happy to be part of giving him that opportunity. Having deployed with my retired search dogs to Haiti, Japan, Nepal and most recently Mexico City, I know just how important Frisco’s role will be in helping us save lives after the next disaster and I can’t wait to continue our training with our team so we can get out there and do what he was clearly meant to do in life.” – Veteran Handler Gary Durian


“There is no way to accurately describe the amazing feeling of being partnered with Bear. Knowing that he originally came to the Search Dog Foundation from the Sacramento area and that we’ll be returning home to serve our community and the country, is an incredibly proud feeling,” shares Paul. “Knowing that the Search Dog Foundation’s first three teams were in Sacramento gives me that much more pride and drive to succeed as we have a legacy to continue and I know Bear and I are up to the task. We are so grateful for the support of SDF, our fire department, task force and everyone who has helped us get to this point – now we’ll get ready for certification and deployment to complete our missions when the time comes.” – Handler Paul Januario


“It’s great to be part of the Search Dog Foundation experience – to be a part of taking Marley full circle, from rescued to rescuer,” shares new handler Adam Leckonby. “And together, we’ll be working to increase response capability in New York State. Knowing that we have the support of not just our department and task force but from SDF as well… It’s incredible.” – Handler Adam Leckonby

The National Training Center is a place where rescued dogs learn to be rescuers, providing a training ground for search and rescue teams throughout the nation to work with their canines in an environment that simulates real disaster conditions such as a train wreck, earthquake-stricken buildings, a freeway collapse, and immense rubble piles The National Training Center is the first training facility in the U.S. dedicated solely to first responders and their canine partners who risk their lives to make sure no one is left behind in the wake of a disaster.

Much of the facility is still in use despite losing part of the training areas to the Thomas Fire on the night of December 4, 2017. SDF’s canine candidates train daily to prepare for their graduation days, usually within 8 to 10 months of entering the training program. These are often rescued dogs with the insatiable toy-drive and extreme athleticism needed for disaster search. Under the guidance of SDF Trainers, the canines learn the obedience, agility, and search skills they’ll need to find people buried alive in the rubble and aftermath of disasters.

SDF Head Trainer Sonja Heritage shares, “These dogs are absolutely amazing. When they first come through the door, we’ll see that some of them won’t make eye contact; they won’t engage with humans much, and we know they’ve had a rough life until now. But as we begin to work with each of them and each dog sees that he or she is a good dog and what was once thought to be obnoxious barking is actually a lifesaving tool, and tugging on the toy isn’t a bad behavior, but something we encourage as a reward… you see that dimmed light inside of them just start shining through. They transform into an engaged, eager, determined, loyal search dog and partner who is willing to go the distance at the side of his or her handler. Seeing these dogs sitting next to their new handlers at graduation, looking up into their eyes, ready to begin their journey together to go out and help save lives – that is what makes this work so fulfilling. That’s what makes this work so necessary.

See the video from our live stream on our Facebook page of the Graduation Ceremony here: